Scott McClellan, ethics and public relations

It appears that former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan wants to tell the truth. Finally. Here’s my reaction: What took you so long? I guess that another thought that comes to mind is douche bag. But I digress.

McClellan has written a book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” Michael D. Shear, writing in The Washington Post this morning (“Ex-Press Aide Writes That Bush Misled U.S. on Iraq“):

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan writes in a new memoir that the Iraq war was sold to the American people with a sophisticated “political propaganda campaign” led by President Bush and aimed at “manipulating sources of public opinion” and “downplaying the major reason for going to war.”

McClellan includes the charges in a 341-page book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” that delivers a harsh look at the White House and the man he served for close to a decade. He describes Bush as demonstrating a “lack of inquisitiveness,” says the White House operated in “permanent campaign” mode, and admits to having been deceived by some in the president’s inner circle about the leak of a CIA operative’s name.

OK. Ho-hum. Is there a thinking person anywhere in the world that doesn’t believe this to be true — and who hasn’t come to the same conclusion months maybe years before now? (And if you are interested in more detail about McClellan and his book, which apparently goes on sale next week, here’s an article by Mike Allen on Politico.com, “Exclusive: McClellan whacks Bush, White House.”

The question is where was McClellan when all this was taking place? When he was getting paid as the public voice/face of the administration? I expect that being White House press secretary is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Every comment counts. Small mistakes matter. You are expected to be knowledgeable on a host of very complex domestic and international issues. And in theory at least you are dealing daily with some of the best and most experienced reporters in the world. I wouldn’t want the job. And I doubt that I could do it.

Yet McClellan wanted it. Doesn’t that job come with some obligation to tell the truth? To serve the American people as well as the administration? And if so, why didn’t he say or do something when events were unfolding — not years later after the damage has been done? I don’t know. He’s not alone in this. And it’s unfair to focus on Scott McClellan given the administration’s record for openness and honestly in total.

Yet we talk about truth, ethics and professionalism a lot in public relations. Wouldn’t it be great for the public to see some examples of these principles in action in a venue where they really should matter?

Instead, here is the view that many see — and I believe it helps shape an overall negative opinion of public relations and public relations professions. It’s a clip from the Imus in the Morning program.

Anyway, I expect that McClellan will be a guest now on all the talk shows promoting the book. Since I know the talking head hosts are busy these days, here two questions I would ask the former press secretary.

If you knew all this at the time, why didn’t you say something publicly? Or resign?

Gee, then we might have had some open and honest discussions at a time when they actually mattered.

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7 responses to “Scott McClellan, ethics and public relations

  1. Shelley Prisco

    Politics never ceases to amaze me. It’s one dirtfest after the other. I know public relations can be practiced ethically, but why is the ethical overshadowed by the deceitful??? Is there anyone out there who practices public relations for the sake of building relationships and advocating their client at the same time? Or maybe it’s just the nature of the business a PR practitioner is in? We all know it’s hard to be ethical in politics. That’s just a given.

    As far as McClellan, he justs wants publicity (HA! HA!) for his own efforts. He probably figured since it’s an election year, let’s add drama to the already heated presidential race. It’s all strategy being used here…not in a productive, positive way. 😦

  2. I agree, really, and I probably shouldn’t ever comment on your blog after watching the talking heads shout at each other for two hours, but it just seems like now this is just an opportunity for people to point fingers. It’s not new news. It’s not some shocking revelation about deception, talking points and war. And rather than pointing fingers, rather than every news commentator getting up now and saying they did everything they could, I wish someone would just say, yeah, I should have asked more. And really everyone should take responsibility in it. The media didn’t ask the tough questions. Neither did Congress. Neither did most of the American people, who are probably just as much as fault because a year in we didn’t do anything about it. Complacency has become a terminal illness in the US. Is this upcoming election our last chance at a miracle cure? I don’t know.

  3. First off i would like to start by saying i have really enjoyed reading your posts on ethical public relations. As a student i have found them incredibly educational. As far as this post on McClellan, your comments have rung true. The job of a Presidential secretary must come with quite a bit of stress but that doesn’t back the decision to be dishonest with the American Public. The video shows many disregards for the PRSA code of ethics. He not only was not upfront, but when asked questions he avoided an honest answer. He had the choice to advise the cabinet to be honest to the public instead of using an unethical course of propaganda and public opinion manipulation. He could have come out to the public after the fact, or resigned his position when he realized the standards were far below moral value. He didn’t, and NOW he comes out with a book. It isn’t a surprise after witnessing the last 8 years of the Bush reign.

  4. Thanks for your comments. This to me is a big issue, one that goes beyond Scott McClellan. For me, this is about truth, honesty and working in the public interest. Nikki, you’re certainly correct when you mention the PRSA code of ethics in this situation.

    And one additional thought. McClellan may be right about all of this. But at this point he has no credibility, at least with me. Too bad he didn’t enroll in the ethics and issues in mass communication course at Kent State. Maybe he would have had a better story to tell when he was press secretary — instead of waiting until now.

  5. I wonder how much money he will recieve from this book? The fact of the matter is that one of the reasons that ethics and morals in PR have become a rarety is because of money. There is more loyalty to the almighty dollar then there is to oneself. McClellan knew of all the issues of Bush’s cabnet and felt it was his job to protect this information. The job of a PR professional is not to protect the client. That is a lawyers job. PR professionals are supposed to act as a bridge between the client and the public. McClellan, in my humble opinion, is not a bridge I would like to drive on. Not only does he disregard the Code of Ethics for PRSA, but he is now trying to profit from it. ADVOCACY, HONESTY, EXPERTISE, INDEPENDENCE, LOYALTY, and FAIRNESS. In the video, the only person who seems to know what these words mean is the journalist. And all the talk about the weight of his job, to me, is a bad excuse for bad performance. When you take a job like this, you know what you are getting into. But i bet the check from all the people buying the book to find out things we all should already know will comfort him.

  6. David,

    Thanks for your comment. I totally agree with you. And the PRSA Code of Ethics does pretty much put this into context. Too bad more people — when given a choice — don’t follow those principles.

    And your comment: “The job of a PR professional is not to protect the client. That is a lawyers job.” I really haven’t considered that specifically in a long time. But I certainly endorse it.

  7. Regarding the last comment made by David, in the PRSA code of ethics it does say to be an advocate for both your client AND the public. So i guess saying it is not your job to protect the client is not compeltley black and white. I think its responsible to only take on clients that you can believe in and stand up for. In McClellans case, he either didn’t care about the morals or his paycheck was far more worth his ethical behavior.

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